The Central Coast is home to some of the most geographically diverse and popular beaches in California, and many of these beaches are only a short trip from the Cal Poly campus. Take a drive on the 101 and you’ll find gateways to Montaña De Oro State Park, Avila Beach, Shell Beach, Pismo State Beach and more.
Montaña De Oro State Park
The name is Spanish and means “Mountain of Gold” because, come spring time, it is blooming with yellow wildflowers. The 8,000-acre Montaña De Oro State Park offers a peaceful retreat for outdoor enthusiasts. The park has a wide geographic variety — from a eucalyptus grove to massive sand dunes to cliffs overhanging the ocean to large hills.
Wildlife is more prominent at Montaña De Oro than most other beaches because of the variety of ecology. Some wildlife that calls Montaña De Oro home are sea otters, sea lions, rattlesnakes and deer. Compared to other beach communities, the state park remains less disturbed by humans and is known as the locals’ secret where they can mountain bike, hike or camp.
Local Martin Sears said he enjoys the varied terrain for his sport.
“At Montaña De Oro, if I want to ride in a forest, I can ride in a forest,” Sears said. “If I want to be closer to the ocean, that’s possible too.”
On its hiking and biking trails, Montaña De Oro offers views of Morro Bay, including the bay itself and Morro Rock. Some trails take the hiker through the forested areas, while others lead to the sea caves and coves of the rugged coastline.
Located just minutes from the heart of San Luis Obispo, Avila Beach is a popular choice among college students. Golf courses, apple orchards, vineyards and hot springs can be seen on the drive to Avila. There are also spots to park to travel on the “Bob Jones Land-to-Sea” bike trail, a mountain biking trail that lives up to its name.
Since Avila Beach is located in the San Luis Bay, temperatures can be up to 10 to 12 degrees warmer than other surrounding beaches. As a result, the water tends to be warmer and water activities are more popular.
At Avila, a beachgoer may kayak, snorkel and swim. Fishing is also popular and there are several piers with accommodations available for the fishing enthusiast.
Port San Luis, just past the main beach in Avila, is one of the only spots to offer free fire pits and barbecues at the end of the beach. The fire pits are first come, first serve, however, so it’s important to get there early. Cal Poly students frequently take advantage of these fire pits for bonfires, especially during Cal Poly’s Week of Welcome in late September.
There is a different atmosphere at Avila Beach during the evenings. Local James Sanders calls it a more “peaceful and quiet environment” than going downtown for drinks.
“I like to try to come out here every night in the summer because the beach has a different vibe at night,” Sanders said.
Not only does Avila Beach offer a vast array of beach activities, but it also has beachfront dining and shopping. The restaurants along the beach feature Italian food, seafood, American food such as delis, and coffee shops.
A few minutes south of Avila Beach lays the small and picturesque community of Shell Beach. As a part of the city of Pismo Beach, Shell Beach offers perfect launching areas for kayakers, small coves, steep bluffs and trails that overlook the Pacific Ocean. A pedestrian may take a path through the seaside neighborhoods of Shell Beach or choose to climb the hills along the highway that lead to caves above the thrashing ocean. The public walking trail is accessible on the corner of Shell Beach Road and El Portal Drive.
Vacationer and part-time local Lauralai Larue finds time away from camping at Pismo State Beach to stroll along the bluffs of Shell Beach.
“It’s so beautiful here and it’s always clear. I’ve never seen bad weather here,” Larue said. “The public walkway is easy for anyone to walk on it and see the amazing views.”
Some of the gems in and around Shell Beach include recreational parks, the notorious Pirate’s Cove and an arts and crafts fair called “Art in the Park.” The city parks include spots for wildlife viewing, barbecue pits and playgrounds for the younger crowd. Some wildlife that may be seen from Shell Beach are birds, pelicans, butterflies, seals, sea otters and whales.
Nestled between Avila Beach and Pismo Beach is Pirate’s Cove, a secluded, “clothing optional” beach. Aside from curious onlookers, Pirate’s Cove is known for attracting respectful elders who keep to themselves.
The Art in the Park event runs the first Sunday of every month from May to October. The event hosts arts and crafts from more than 100 local artists and also features live entertainment and food.
Shell Beach is also a hot spot for the college crowd because it is less traveled by families and police. For this reason, on weekends and any time temperatures peak, college students can be seen carpooling down 101 South.
Pismo State Beach
Tommie O’Donoghue has lived in Pismo Beach since 2002. Before that, she lived in Austin, Texas for 17 years, but she said she ached to come back to the Central Coast.
Today, O’Donoghue now works for the Pismo Beach Chamber of Commerce.
“When people ask what is there to do in Pismo Beach, I tell them ‘relax and get cool,’” O’Donoghue said.
At Pismo State Beach, which O’Donoghue said is mainly a tourist beach, the ideal climate allows for beach-going during all four seasons. The beach is not affected by tides so the water is calm from the pier on. However, the water tends to be a lot cooler than neighboring Avila Beach because of its enclosed location.
Surfing, kayaking, walking, horseback riding and ATV riding are exceptionally popular activities at Pismo State Beach. Although vehicles aren’t allowed on Pismo State Beach itself, the Oceano Dunes, south of Pismo Beach, provide a chance for adventurous drivers to ride on large, soft sand dunes.
For less adventurous visitors, Pismo Beach has approximately 45 restaurants such as steakhouses, Italian, Asian and seafood. Clams are a popular staple in the local seafood restaurants because Pismo Beach is known for its Pismo Clam. For savvy shoppers, the Pismo Beach Prime Outlets feature more than 40 name-brand, discounted outlet stores.
Approximately five miles north of the boating haven of Morro Bay is the quaint beach community of Cayucos. Listed by CNN as one of “America’s coolest small towns,” the Cayucos community has a downtown area that features dining, art galleries, shops and recreational activities such as pier fishing and skating at the local skate park.
Many of the restaurants in downtown Cayucos offer oceanfront dining and locally sourced ingredients of freshly caught fish. Rudell’s Smokehouse, a critically acclaimed restaurant by Coastal Living and Sunset magazines, is located right by the ocean and offers fresh meat presented in a taco, salad or sandwich. Rudell’s personifies the mellow vibe of Cayucos in the way it prepares its food; each meal is carefully and slowly smoked with flavor. Other notable dining experiences include Hoppe’s Bistro and Wine Bar and Schooners Wharf.
North of Cayucos there are many opportunities for outdoors exploring. Estero Bluffs State Park features 355 acres of coastal terrain and the California Coastal Trail extends the entire length of the California coast — and there are gateways to the trail near Cayucos. Sea lions can be seen diving off some of the rocky coast during certain times of the year.
Cambria, known as the place where “the pines meet the sea,” is just north of Cayucos on Highway 1. Divided into three areas, Cambria features East Village, West Village and Moonstone Beach Drive.
The East Village is home to Victorian-style buildings dating back to the 1870s that host a variety of art galleries, shops and places for dining. The West Village is closer to the ocean but shares the same layout as its eastern neighbor. There is a farmers’ market every Friday at 2:30 p.m. that brings the East and West Villages together on the shared Main Street.
Right by the ocean, Moonstone Beach Drive runs in a loop near Highway 1. Along Moonstone Beach Drive, there are day use parks and beaches with opportunities for water activities — such as surfing and skim boarding — bicycling, picnicking, barbecuing and collecting shells or semiprecious stones such as moonstone or jade. Fishing is allowed only at certain locations.
Vacationers in Cambria often make a day trip to famed newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst’s castle located about 10 miles north of Cambria. Hearst Castle, now a California State Park, offers five different tours daily, each one focusing on a specific area of the castle. Tickets are sold on site at the visitor’s center, but reservations are recommended.